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Criminal Justice

LA Supervisors Vote to Explore Creating Locked, 'Non-Correctional' Mental Health Facilities

Large letters embedded on a low concrete walls read Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Twin Towers Correctional Facility Inmate Reception Center Medical Services. Two large towers with all of the windows bricked over loom in the background
The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown L.A.
(Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images)
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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion Tuesday that proposed establishing locked “non-correctional” mental health treatment facilities for incarcerated people with mental health needs currently languishing in the county jails.

They voted down a similar motion introduced by Supervisor Kathryn Barger asking for a report from county counsel on what it would take to establish new locked mental health treatment facilities.

In 2019, the supervisors canceled plans to replace Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A. with a large mental health treatment center. They voted to close the jail without building a replacement facility.

Last year, the board approved a plan to close Men’s Central that calls for, among other things, diverting those with mental health issues from the jail and investing in community-based treatment options. That plan, part of the Care First, Jails Last initiative, did not include setting up locked facilities.

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There was a swift online backlash to the call for “secured” facilities in Tuesday’s motion, with jail reform advocates worrying that the plan would simply create more jails.

Dozens of protesters rallied in bright orange shirts outside Tuesday’s meeting — the first in-person board meeting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. They held signs that said “care not cages” and “no new jails.”

Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn introduced the motion that was approved. It directs an array of county departments and officials to explore ways to establish “secured, non-correctional” mental health treatment facilities.

“We don’t need a replacement jail — we need to revisit replacing Men’s Central Jail,” Solis said, adding that there are existing locked facility programs serving formerly incarcerated patients.

Current Conditions

Timothy Belavich, the director of county correctional health services, told the board that more than 7,000 people incarcerated in the county’s jails have mental health care needs.

“The jail was not built or created to provide care to this number of individuals,” he said.

It is clear that these individuals need to be held in a facility staffed by those who have the training, rapport, and appropriate skill set to work with this population.
— Motion by Supervisors Solis and Hahn that was adopted Tuesday
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A total of about 1,600 people incarcerated in the county jails have “a debilitating mental illness that could pose a danger to themselves or others,” according to the motion.

“It is clear that these individuals need to be held in a facility staffed by those who have the training, rapport, and appropriate skill set to work with this population,” the motion read.

A 'Harsh Reality'

Barger’s motion called for county staff to report back in 90 days on establishing “secure mental health treatment facility/facilities for those incarcerated but cannot be diverted.” She pushed back against the opposition to her motion. “It does not say, ‘Build a jail,’” Barger said.

She referred to several outstanding provisions from the 2015 Department of Justice settlement agreement with the county on jail conditions that relate to providing appropriate housing and health care for incarcerated people with mental health illnesses.

“We must face the harsh reality that not all will qualify for diversion to community-based programs based on a variety of factors, including their charges and their threat to public safety,” Barger’s motion reads.

Her motion failed 3-2, with other supervisors expressing concern that its language could lead to the establishment of another jail.

Reaction So Far

Several organizers with theAnti-Recidivism Coalition serving incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people wrote in to support the idea of a secure treatment facility.

But other jail reform advocates quickly took to social media this week and showed up to the supervisor’s chamber on Tuesday to denounce both motions.

These proposals risk recreating the alarming overcrowding problems that we are currently seeing in the jails.
— Shamsher Samra of the JusticeLA Coalition

“These proposals risk recreating the alarming overcrowding problems that we are currently seeing in the jails,” said Shamsher Samra, a jail physician and assistant professor at UCLA, in a press release from theJusticeLA Coalition.

“LA’s Care First vision is clear — LA County must build a decentralized system of care,” said Lynn Moss in a written public comment. “What that means is NOT another asylum, but rather, treatment centers spread out across Los Angeles.”

The county operates a diversion program widely seen as a success through the Office of Diversion and Reentry that has diverted and provided housing for thousands of incarcerated people with mental health or physical health needs.

Supervisors did not expand the program’s budget for the next fiscal year — despite a 2020 RAND study showing that more than 60% of the L.A. jails’ mental health population are candidates for diversion.

“We have to invest in the community-based treatment model in a significant and effective way,” Supervisor Holly Mitchell said, adding that she worried that creating a secure mental health treatment facility would just create “another Men’s Central Jail.”

'Abysmal' Conditions At The Inmate Reception Center

Tuesday’s motions came on the heels of a scathing court filing earlier this month from the ACLU of Southern California and the group’s National Prison project asking a federal court to order immediate improvements in the “abysmal” conditions at L.A.s’ Inmate Reception Center (IRC).

On Sept. 16, Judge Dean D. Pregerson granted a temporary restraining order that prohibits the county from keeping anyone in the IRC longer than 24 hours and from chaining anyone in a chair in the area’s “front-bench” for more than four hours. It also mandates that the IRC be kept clean, provide working toilets, medical care, drinking water and food.

The Scene Tuesday

Protesters started lining up outside the board chambers around 8 a.m., according to event organizers.

But many were initially barred by Sheriff’s deputiesfrom entering the supervisor’s chambers, instead standing outside in the heat for hours during the meeting’s extended public comment period, according to organizers and photos from the scene.

A photo posted to the official board Twitter account showed rows of empty seats in the meeting chambers.

The board’s executive office said in a press release earlier this month that due to COVID-19 regulations, the meeting chamber will be limited to 100 people.

Hahn spokesperson Liz Odendahl told LAist that the supervisor wants to reassess whether the limitation still makes sense.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.